by Justine Burt and Mary Chambers
When COVID hit, our hotel occupancy fell from 80% to 10% in one week,” explained Alexandra Tague, a Senior Sales Manager in Omaha. “Ownership first cut the housekeepers. Then restaurant staff went from 15 down to one cook and one manager. Our contract with an airline was the only reason they didn’t lay off more people. My job was leisure sales at three hotels — think weddings, sports, reunions, church groups. The whole week before I was laid off was a constant stream of phone calls and emails from people panicking about their events and deposits.”
The hospitality industry suffered deep cuts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as did the travel, transportation, and retail industries. Their ranks make up many of the 40.8 million who filed for unemployment between mid-March and late May.
Forty-two percent of those 40.8 million jobs are not coming back, according to a University of Chicago report. The three economists who co-authored the report assert that these permanent job losses stem from two things related to the pandemic: shifts in demand and intra-industry reallocation of labor. Uber drivers are moving over to food-delivery service Doordash, and people sheltering in place are shopping online at Amazon and Walmart.com instead of patronizing small, local, brick-and-mortar businesses.
As our citizens wonder what the future holds, some are pushing for a return to the old economy. We believe they are setting their sights too low. The old economy wasn’t working for most people, or for nature. Once workers globally started sheltering in place, they realized how much better things could be. For example, air quality improved, gridlocked traffic practically disappeared overnight, and many people who had wanted to work from home showed they could do so effectively.
Instead of pining for the old economy based on extraction, consumption, and pollution, our society should aim higher. By creating millions of new green jobs that cannot be outsourced or automated — jobs retrofitting, reclaiming, restoring, upgrading, and upcycling — we will build a resilient future that can bounce back more easily from future shocks.
Meanwhile, Congress deploys wave after wave of stimulus spending to prop up the economy. Considering that the trillions of stimulus spending is debt our children and grandchildren will be paying off for decades, we believe they should get something valuable in exchange. That something could be a just, equitable, and green future.
How many deep green jobs could we create?
The “deep green” jobs we propose involve work that directly reduces human impact on the environment and restores nature. An electrician who replaces a natural gas furnace with an electric heat exchanger that results in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is one example. A wildlife biologist who rehabilitates and reintroduces endangered black-footed ferrets into the wild, thus restoring wildlife populations, is another example.
Drawing on analyses conducted by several groups, the following graph provides a breakdown of the 14.3 million green jobs that collaborative efforts between the public, private and non-profit sectors could create to help the US economy recover.
100% renewable energy — Mark Jacobson’s Solutions Project at Stanford University calculates a potential for 5,258,782 new clean energy jobs. His team conducted a detailed inventory that includes jobs:
The Solutions Project categorizes jobs as either construction (2,238,188) or operations (3,020,594).
New Civilian Conservation Corps — Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, proposes reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps. If our government expanded it to the size of President Roosevelt’s original Civilian Conservation Corps, our country would create 3.4 million jobs in reforestation, natural forest management, seagrass restoration, wetland restoration, dam removal, and endangered species recovery, among others.
High-speed rail — Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton proposes a national high-speed rail network that would create 2.6 million jobs over 5 years.
Organic agriculture — Jon Rynn’s Green New Deal Plan from his book Manufacturing Green Prosperity estimates that the increased labor and new equipment required to farm all of our food organically would create an additional 1.12 million jobs. Technical support and business services for both farmers in transition and novice farmers would help speed the transition to 100% organic.
75% recycling and composting — the Natural Resources Defense Council calculates that by expanding recycling and composting to handle 75% of our solid waste, we would create 1.1 million jobs.
Building energy efficiency retrofits — the UCLA Luskin School reported that upgrading California’s 14 million homes and 8 billion square feet of commercial space to zero net energy would create 80,600 building retrofit jobs. The US as a whole has 143 million homes and 87 billion square feet of commercial space, or ten times the number of homes and commercial square footage. If we took the number of building retrofit jobs for California and multiplied by ten, it would mean the US would need 806,000 workers retrofitting buildings for zero net energy.
In total these deep green jobs could put 14.3 million people back to work. But just creating green jobs is not quite enough. In order to ensure the economic recovery lifts everyone up, we need one more component.
Why it’s so important that the green recovery is also just and equitable
In his job at the Texas state environmental agency in the late 1990s, an enforcement agent frequently fielded nuisance behavior calls from people living in areas near oil and chemical refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. The enforcement agent suspected that resident complaints were overblown — until he slept over in the area. In the middle of the night, a pungent smell jolted him from a deep sleep, and he was overcome with a powerful urge to vomit. He believed his physical response resulted from the chemical fumes in the air.
A person in such a situation cannot deny that residents in low-income communities such as these suffer the effects of pollution the oil and chemical refineries release. Indeed, low-income communities have disproportionately endured the burden of pollution for too long. Houses are less expensive near industrial areas, confined animal feeding operations, landfills, highway interchanges, airports, and shipping ports. Too many people with low incomes are forced to tolerate poor air quality, poor water quality, and soil contamination because they cannot afford housing in other areas.
By investing in clean energy and clean transportation systems, some of the concerns raised by environmental justice advocates will be addressed. Switching out traditional equipment and vehicles that burn fossil fuels for electric will improve the health and quality of life for people who live in these areas. Projects to reduce lead flowing through taps in urban households and improving water quality in rural areas with groundwater tainted by fracking are two more examples of the types of green jobs that will create a just and equitable recovery.
To ensure communities of color reap the benefits of a green recovery, elevating more people of color to leadership positions is vitally important. A green recovery will require businesses, non-profits, and public agencies to collaboratively design, fund, and implement programs that catalyze green job creation. Having a diverse slate of leaders will ensure the benefits of a green recovery reach all corners of the economy.
Furthermore, the core workers reporting to those people in leadership positions deserve to make enough to support themselves and have access to healthcare. Entry-level green jobs must pay a minimum of $15 per hour and offer pay ladders that provide better compensation as workers develop more specialized skills. These are the types of high-road jobs that will rebuild a thriving middle class.
Helping people make the transition
The chasm between the retail, hospitality, travel, and transportation jobs the economy just shed and the jobs we need in construction, regenerative agriculture, and a circular economy is wide. Switching from working the front desk at a hotel to installing heat exchangers will require extensive training.
Helping people upgrade their skills for new jobs is one of the ways government funding can help speed the recovery — if the training is relevant. This is something the coal industry in Appalachia is currently struggling with. Out-of-work coal miners are being urged to undergo training in software programming, but the training sessions are poorly attended. Coal miners cite four reasons for this: mining pays well, and they’re waiting to be called back; they are unfamiliar with other industries; there’s no income during training; and there’s no guarantee of a job afterward.
The pandemic may be resetting expectations as the reach, severity, and duration of the virus’s impacts on society continue to surprise us. People may be more motivated nowadays to seek out training and to prepare themselves for career transitions.
As we plan for new jobs that will yield a just, equitable, and green economic recovery, a huge potential labor pool is available. In May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 14.7 million people aged 25–64 were unemployed. On top of this, 39 million people aged 25–64 were categorized as Not in the Labor Force. These are separate categories, which means that 53.9 million out of a total of 168 million Americans of prime working age are potentially available for full-time work.
Meanwhile, Congress is planning the next round of stimulus funding to help households stay afloat. At some point, stimulus funding must move from providing a safety net to supporting job creation. Congress is attempting to do just that with H.R. 2, the Moving America Forward Act. A mixed bag, this legislation both doubles down on the old economy run on fossil fuels and invests in clean energy and clean transportation jobs.
For the most part, the money for economic stimulus funding is conjured up when the federal government adds debt to its balance sheet. As Congress gets ready to inject the next round of funding to stave off economic collapse, let’s encourage our legislators to invest it in projects that will benefit those paying off that debt. What better gifts could we give our children and grandchildren than a stable climate, healthy ecosystems, and abundant wildlife populations?
Justine Burt is the author of The Great Pivot: Creating Meaningful Work to Build a Sustainable Future, available from Chelsea Green Publishing. She is a consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in sustainability behavior change.
Mary Chambers earned her MS in Earth Systems: Sustainable Agriculture from Stanford University in 2016 and has done sustainable international development work in Bangladesh and Ethiopia.